My Journey "Learning Outside the Classroom" at Harvard

Category Student Voices


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Raymond Class of '25
Authored on March 29, 2023


“Learning happens outside the classroom.”

Elementary-school me would have thought, “No, learning happens at school.” Learning was hidden in the colorful shapes and numbers that dangled from the walls of the classroom. Learning was multiplication tables flashcard contests with pizza parties for the winning homeroom. Learning was hopping from one US state to another, except those states were thin layers of blue and red paint laid atop otherwise gray concrete.

A picture of a group of over 100 elementary school students posing for photograph


Learning was elementary school field trips to NASA!

Over the course of my life and my time at Harvard, I’ve had plenty of time to sit on the question of what it truly means to “learn outside the classroom.” As I reflect on this past year and all that I’ve done, learned, and seen, I realize I've come to see the magnitude of this statement.

Learning is a mysterious, evolving process. Molded by time and tempered by experience, learning stoked inside me a passion for discovery. In many ways, college at Harvard has given me the opportunity to try new things, pursue my passions, and meet people that I never would have imagined being able to meet. I realized that “learning” is so much more than what happens inside the classroom. In this blog, I'd like to tell you about my journey "learning outside the classroom" at Harvard.

New Shapes, Brighter Colors, and Different Numbers

In elementary school, bright colors, flashy designs, and beautiful patterns stole my attention. Enthralled by vibrant posters, creative projects, and animated worksheets, I found myself grasping for concepts as if they were Monets floating in mid-air.

At Harvard, I realized that my childhood love for the arts never died out. Instead, they morphed into something new. I’ve found my free time drifting toward volunteering at Brattle Square Florist—the local flower shop—steaming milk and pouring espresso drinks, and exploring the shapes, colors, and numbers that represent landmarks on the map of Boston.

A picture of a flower base arrangement

Learning to Arrange

Taught by none other than Tom at the Brattle Square Florist, I learned how to make this arrangement!

I’ve gotten opportunities to volunteer at a homeless shelter, drive a Tesla, play a walk-on part in a major motion picture, and do many other things that I never could have imagined doing before college.

Picture of a gloved hand with a preserved brain

Minds, Brains, and Behaviors

It was at this time I realized I was going to study neuroscience.

At Harvard, it seems exploration simply looks different than it did in elementary school. In college, the shapes are new people, the colors are more vivid experiences, and the numbers lie in all the things I've been able to do at Harvard.

A New Kind of “Multiplication Tables,” A New Kind of “Pizza Party”

If I competed against third-grade me in a multiplication tables flashcard competition, I would surely have lost. Third-grade me loved math so much—he would have smoked me now in everything from reciting the multiplication tables to solving a long-division problem.

For a portion of my third-grade life, “getting good” at the multiplication tables was a life goal. Looking back, achievement and learning brought me joy like nothing else could.

Picture of author and his friends in green shirts building a contraption

A Love for Discovery

I had so much fun with my friends designing and building this hydraulically-powered contraption!

As I’ve learned in one of my psychology classes, the intrinsic motivation to learn can be a powerful one. I’ve realized this intrinsic motivation to learn has never decayed. At Harvard, what used to be multiplication tables flashcards have suddenly been revived as fascinating papers on bioactive phytocompounds, diagrams of personality development, and experiments with writing music in multipolar tonality. Through class field trips, I’ve gotten to engage in subject material in hands-on and collaborative ways. I’ve gotten to know professors doing incredible work in their fields and gain access to giants in over 50 fields of research.

A picture of a cross section of a green tree bud

Cross Section of a Tree Bud

The physiological details of a dissected tree bud under the microscope are spectacular! Photo by Sidnee Klein '25

At Harvard, the academic and professional opportunities have simply turned my childhood dreams of mastering sailing, the arcane arts, and being a superhero into an unwavering fascination with plants and nature, the works of the human brain, and the complexities of music. And I can do all this while learning new things every day from talented friends and peers.

Selfie of Raymond and his friend with sailboats in the background


Of course! One of my incredible sailing friends invited me to sail with him.

Unexpectedly, “multiplication tables” and the equivalent of a “pizza party” in college take a different form. Everyone I’ve met is passionate and driven to pursue their goals and dreams—that is often in and of itself something to celebrate. But, like in elementary school, “multiplication tables” for me has been about pursuing my passions, and the "pizza parties" are now the intrinsic fun that comes along with learning new things and gaining new experiences. It should be fun, after all!

Hopping from Pennsylvania to Boston, then Boston to Sweden

Recesses were especially fun for me in elementary school. During recess, I would jump from state to state on the playground, imagining I could travel across the United States in seconds. I’d imagine the mountains in Wyoming, the sunny beaches in Florida, and the deserts in Arizona—teeming with wildlife. One year, I learned all about Colorado and its beautiful scenery. I remember dreaming to go to Colorado someday. I had only ever gone as far out as West Virginia, New York, and Ohio. 

Little did I know, I would get opportunities to travel in college. Later this year, I will be performing at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City with the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and in a few months, I will be exploring the beautiful hearts of Sweden. I have traveled with good friends to everywhere from the rippling sands of Cape Cod to the shopping centers of Rhode Island.

A picture of the author and fellow singers standing and performing

Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum

We've gotten to sing everything from Bach's Christmas Oratorio to Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 (my favorite!).

To travel is to have the opportunity to see the world. At Harvard, I’ve gotten the chance to visit places that many of my family and friends have not had the opportunity to visit. Little did I know, hopping from one state to another wasn’t so fantastic after all!

A selfie of Raymond and his four friends in front of a house and greenery

Cape Cod with Friends

An amazing opportunity to travel with friends during the summer of 2022!


Thinking back to elementary school, learning in college is not that different after all. Learning is written in chalk streaks on chalkboards, but also in conversations with friends from Germany and Bolivia. Learning is chatting with professors, but also spending free time watching a neighbor’s cat, cutting back flower stems at a flower shop, or trying to get the perfect steamed milk consistency at Harvard’s BioLounge. Learning can be finally submitting a final exam, but it can also be meeting with a really interesting person to talk about a project that you oh-so want to be involved in.

Most importantly, learning is about uncovering the beautiful things in life. My family and my friends have given me the opportunity to do exactly that, and more, at Harvard. For all that, I am forever grateful.

A picture of a red banner saying "Welcome Harvard First Year" in front of a brick wall

Arriving at Harvard

The welcome banner I saw the day I moved in.


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Raymond Class of '25

Hey everyone! My name is Raymond, and I’m a junior at Harvard College studying Neuroscience on the Mind, Brain, and Behavior track. I live in Currier House—objectively the best house at the College!

Photo of Raymond Zheng